- Two Salesforce employees resigned in February, citing issues of microaggressions and gaslighting.
- The news resurfaced how microaggressions can be detrimental to employee engagement and retention.
- DEI experts recommend employers work to minimize microaggressions through empathy.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Last month, in the span of less than two weeks, two Black women resigned from the tech giant Salesforce after experiencing “rampant microaggressions and gaslighting,” in an environment in which they were “bullied, neglected, and mostly unsupported.”
Their highly publicized departures resurfaced a sensitive topic in the workplace: how microaggressions – or the indirect and often unintentional expressions of racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism – can end up poisoning the engagement and retention of a company’s employees, and contribute to a widespread decline in productivity and mental health.
“Companies tend to treat microaggressions as isolated incidents or a case of an individual’s poor sense of judgement,” said Richard Leong, a consultant and leadership coach at the HR consultancy Collective. “But the reality is they reflect larger trends in society.”
If companies hope to stamp out microaggressions, and protect the engagement and well-being of their underrepresented employees, DEI experts like Leong say leaders need to focus on building human skills like emotional intelligence and empathy.
Two resignations in 11 days
Vivianne Castillo, who resigned from her position as manager of design research and innovation on Feb. 15, wrote in her notice that Salesforce has a culture that is “upheld by gaslighting underrepresented groups when they call attention to inequities.”
Castillo became the second Black woman in February to publicly criticize the $219-billion cloud-software company and its work environment, after Cynthia Perry, another former senior manager at the company, described similar concerns and published her resignation on LinkedIn.
“I am leaving my job at Salesforce because of countless microaggressions and inequity,” Perry wrote on Feb. 8. I have been gaslit, manipulated, bullied, neglected, and mostly unsupported…the entire time I’ve been here. Salesforce, for me, is not a safe place to come to work.”
Though Salesforce has long advocated for social change, insiders previously shared that its progress toward DEI has been slow. Salesforce didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Microaggressions are uniquely damaging, DEI experts say, because they are mostly invisible to those sending them, but they are deeply felt by those who experience them. For instance, telling a colleague of color that they’re “surprisingly articulate,” or making remarks about how someone’s name is hard to pronounce, are subtle signs of indirect racism at work.
“When people don’t acknowledge microaggressions as part of a larger problem, what happens is they will continue to happen,” Leong said. “And that will create an environment where people don’t feel safe or that they belong.”
A 2019 Deloitte survey of 3,000 employees found that 83% of participants who have experienced discrimination at work said it was “indirect and subtle” – in other words, microaggressions. Another study based on over 11 million survey comments by Peakon, an employee engagement platform, revealed that a poor office environment is one of the top three reasons why people quit their jobs.
“Microaggressions are frequently casually dismissed,” Lisa Gelobter, cofounder of raceAhead, a confidential platform focused on addressing workplace discrimination bias, wrote recently in Fortune. “Employees don’t report these issues to HR because it feels like a disproportionate reaction to a passing comment or snub.”
Disarming microaggressions at work
It’s often hard for companies to identify the invisible ways where racism holds back progress in their daily practices. But there are steps employers can proactively take to change the culture.
Kim Crowder, a DEI consultant who’s named one of Forbes’ top seven anti-racism educators, has urged employers to listen to underrepresented employees, get comfortable with having conversations around discrimination, and have regular meetings (in both large and small gatherings) about their DEI efforts.
“Create safe environments through affinity groups with a direct pipeline to upper level management and HR so that those most affected are able to report these issues in confidence without losing professional credibility, be isolated and/or bullied, nor will their job be on the line,” she wrote.
Introducing more unconscious bias trainings is an incomplete solution, Leong said. Employees who are impacted by microaggressions should have the option to seek accountability and have someone they can report to about these concerns.
“If their managers are the ones who are perpetuating microaggressions or being complacent and allowing them to persist, then employees will need someone else to talk to,” he said.
Creating new channels for staff to report discriminatory experiences can mean setting up DEI-specific committees as a listening board. Companies can also partner up with an external third party that’d handle HR reports, Leong told Insider.
“At the end of the day, it has to be a solution where folks at all levels of the organization – especially those at the lowest – will feel comfortable accessing,” he said.
DEI consultants also told Insider’s Marguerite Ward that company leaders should build their emotional intelligence, or the ability to make good judgements through understanding the way people feel. Without that skillset, experts say, they won’t be able to foster an equitable and inclusive work environment or engage in tough conversations about race and privilege.
With DEI, “we are dealing with people,” leadership coach Arquella Hargrove previously told Insider. “We want to humanize it. There’s emotion there. If we’re trying to center around humanity and accept people for who they are, you have to have a skillset of understanding and of empathy.”